Casual Players, It’s Time To Go To A Tournament!

I have met a lot of casual players who are unwilling to play, or afraid of playing, in big tourneys. But the current cycle of Pro Tour Qualifiers is Onslaught/Legions sealed deck, and it is a perfect place to start playing in bigger tourneys. Here’s why.

I have met a lot of casual players who are unwilling to play, or afraid of playing, in big tourneys. I hear the same reasons all the time – the first few spoken, the last often unspoken but still there.

  1. I don’t have the cards to be competitive.

  2. I hate playing netdecks.

  3. It costs too much.

  4. I don’t know what to do.

  5. I don’t know how to build a deck.

  6. I’m not good enough.

The current cycle of Pro Tour Qualifiers (PTQs) is Onslaught / Legions sealed deck. It is a perfect place to start playing in bigger tourneys. Here’s why.

1. I don’t have the cards.

No one else does either. Sealed deck means that you get a tourney pack of Onslaught (the equivalent of three booster packs) and two Legions booster packs. You build your deck from those cards. In that respect, you start with the same number of cards as everyone else. If you are lucky, you may get some bombs. If not, you can still do well if you built your deck well enough. It isn’t all opening great cards; the last time I made a top eight at a sealed deck PTQ, I had no bombs, just a very consistent set of moderate cards.

2. I hate playing – or playing against – netdecks.

Fine. It’s sealed deck – there are no netdecks. The closest thing to internet wisdom is some pretty obvious stuff – like if you are playing black and have Cruel Revival, you play it. One thing is certain; at a sealed deck tourney, you will not keep seeing the same decks over and over.

3. It costs too much.

A typical sealed-deck PTQ costs $25. For that, you get five booster packs of cards and some lands – and you keep them. Most PTQs have six to eight rounds of Swiss, followed by a top eight draft. Each Swiss round is decided by best two of three games – and you can keep playing in subsequent rounds whether you win or lose. With seven rounds, that means that you will get to play at least fourteen games – and many players will play additional games for fun.

Plus, if you make the top eight, you can win additional packs and get a free Top 8 draft. So you get five rares, fifteen uncommons, lots of commons and eight hours or so of Magic, all for $25. That’s a bargain.

4. I don’t know what to do.

You will do five main things at a tourney. I’ll list them, then walk through each.

  1. Register for the tourney.

  2. Get seated.

  3. Register someone else’s deck.

  4. Build your own deck.

  5. Play Magic.

Before elaborating, however, I’ll talk about what you should bring. First, bring money for the entrance fee, and maybe some extra for lunch or sodas. Second, bring a pen or pencil and some paper. Having a way to record life totals is required, and paper works better than dice – especially if you want to take notes. You should also bring dice or other counters to use as tokens, since you may be lucky enough to open Centaur Glade. In a pinch, however, spare change can work. Also, think about bringing sleeves. I know that my hands get sweaty, so I always sleeve my cards. Otherwise, they get sticky after a few rounds, and may become accidentally marked.

Okay, back to the five steps. The first step is to register for the tourney. That means paying your money and handing in a little sign-in form with blanks for your name, age, DCI number and probably address or email address. If you don’t have a DCI number, you can get one. They are free – and the forms for getting a DCI number are probably close to the sign-in forms.

The next step happens once registration is closed. The organizer will post”seatings” or”pairings” – a list of all the players and the tables at which they will be sitting. The list is alphabetical, and generally hung on the wall. Look for the crowd, fight your way to the list and find your name. Somewhere in the general vicinity will be the tables at which you will be sitting. Tables are numbered in the center. Find your table and sit down.

If you are unsure about where you are supposed to go, just ask. The organizer and the judges are there to answer questions. They will always prefer to have people ask questions in advance, rather than guessing, because it’s a lot easier to answer questions that to fix mistakes and problems later on.

The next step is to register decks – and the deck you get at this time is not the deck you will be playing.

The judges will pass out packs and decklists. Don’t open them until they say so. When they say start, start by writing your name on the Onslaught side of the list, under the heading”Registered by:” That’s important. Next, open the Onslaught pack and separate out the basic (non-foil) lands – a judge will collect those. Now you need to register all the Onslaught cards. The registration form will have a complete listing of Onslaught on one side and Legions on the other, all sorted by color and in alphabetical order. Sort the Onslaught cards by color, then sort each color alphabetically. Now list the cards you have in the”total (not”played”) column. If you have two Akroma’s Vengeance, write the numeral”2″ in the registered column next to Akroma’s Vengeance, and so forth. Don’t register the lands – that section only has a”played” column, to be used by the person playing the deck. If you have a foil land – a mountain, for example – write”foil mountain” in the blank space near the list of basic lands.

Once you finish all the Onslaught cards, do the same with Legions. Then double check everything. Once you are sure everything is correct, put the Onslaught and Legions cards in the box, and put the list with it. Leave the cards sorted by set, color and in alphabetical order. Some organizers pass everything out in paper bags – in that case, put everything back in the bag. Other organizers ask you to fold up the list and stuff it in the box with the cards. Just listen to the judges and do whatever they say. Once that’s done, they will collect the cards.

Once all the decks are registered, the judges will have everyone go back to their seats, then redistribute decks. A few people will get their own decks back – the rest will be distributed at random. At this point, the cards you get are yours to keep.

The first step when you get your deck is to check the actual cards against the list of cards registered. They should match exactly. If there are any problems, call a judge immediately.

The next step is to build your deck. You have half an hour, so work quickly, but think it through. I’ll cover some basics on building your deck below, but some general comments first. You need to build and register a forty-card (minimum) deck. List the number of lands you want in your main deck in the”played” column. Then do the same for each card you are going to play. Check your list, and total each column. The total number of cards listed must be at least forty, including lands. You can have more than forty cards, but if you have listed less than forty, that’s illegal, and you will get a game loss.

Each round begins when the judges post pairings. These are the alphabetical listings, and show the table number, and identify the person you will be playing. Remember the table number, and the opponent’s name if you can, or at least their first name. Find your table and sit down. Introduce yourself to your opponent. Knowing your opponent’s name lets you double check that you are at the right table – if the name is wrong, one of you is at the wrong seat. Again, if you are having any problems, just ask a judge.

Once you are seated, don’t start playing until the judges say so. Sit down, introduce yourself and shuffle your deck a couple times. Then present your deck. At this point, it has to be exactly as you registered it. (The judges do check some decks at random.) Presenting it means offering it to your opponent to shuffle and cut. Your opponent will do the same. Shuffle your opponent’s deck – tapping is fine for casual play, but the rules for major tournaments actually say that you must shuffle your opponent’s deck. You and your opponent should also roll a die or flip a coin to determine who plays (or draws) first.

Once the judge says start, you have fifty minutes for the match. If someone wins two games during the match, it’s over. If not, and the judges call time, then the active player finishes his/her turn. After that, the match runs for five additional turns – that’s five turns, total. If someone wins during that time, the game and match is over. If not, the game is a draw.

Here’s a quick example of the end of a match between Bob and Tom:

  • It’s Bob’s turn, and Bob is about to announce his attack when time is called. Bob attacks, plays cards, and finishes his turn.

  • Extra turns start. Extra turn #1. Tom untaps, attacks, plays some spells and ends his turn.

  • Extra turn #2: Bob untaps, etc.

  • Extra turn #3: Tom untaps, attacks and plays Time Stretch, and activates Mirari to copy Time Stretch. Time Stretch gives Tom two turns after the current one, and the Mirari copy of Time Stretch gives him another two turns. Normally, Tom would have four turns before Bob would get another turn.

  • Extra Turn #4: Tom gets his first Time Stretch turn.

  • Extra Turn #5: Tom gets his second Time Stretch turn. Then the game ends. Even though Tom would normally have two more turns, time had been called and the game ran through five extra turns. That’s it. It is over.

Once the match is finished, fill out the match slip. Simply record the number of games each player won, and the number of games that were draws or did not finish. Check to make sure it is correct, then both players sign it. Some organizers have the players bring the match slips to the scoring table – if so, it is the winner’s job to take the slip up. Others have a judge collect the slips – if that’s what’s happening, simply raise your hand, call”judge!” and keep your hand up until the judge arrives.

The match slip also has blanks to check if you want to drop out of the tournament. If you want to drop out, put an X or write”drop” in the blank after your name. Don’t drop your opponent by mistake, and – if you do not want to drop – do not put anything in the drop blank. Don’t write”no.” Don’t write”staying in,” or”not yet.” At the end of a match, the judges are trying to enter results in the computer quickly, so they can start the next round. They may see something in the drop blank and drop you, even if that something is the word”no.” Just leave it blank until you want to drop out.

After the match, remove any sideboard cards and reset your deck to match the decklist you submitted, and shuffle a bit to get ready for the next match. Then feel free to wander around, watch other matches, talk to friends, etc. You can even go outside for food or whatever, but make sure you are back by the time they post the next round pairings – being late is a game loss, being very late is a match loss.

A quick note: If, at any time, you have a question about anything (involving Magic), and your opponent either doesn’t explain it adequately or you are not sure whether the explanation is right, ask a judge. They are there to answer questions. Just raise your hand, call”Judge!” and keep your hand up until a judge arrives.

(One thing that bugs me, when I’m judging, is to hear someone behind me call for a judge, then turn around and see no hands – nothing to tell me where I should be going.)

If you question what a judge tells you, you can appeal to the head judge. It’s your right, but don’t abuse it.

5. I don’t know how to build a deck.

People write whole articles about building sealed decks, and it is probably a good idea to read a couple of those. Here are a few basics, to get you started.

A sealed deck has to be at least forty cards, including lands. You can play more, but each additional card reduces the odds that you will draw your best cards. A one in forty chance of drawing Rorix Bladewing is better than a one in forty-two chance. Play forty cards. Of those, eighteen should be land – or at least in this format.

You want to play two colors if you can. Two colors makes the mana problems less likely. However, sometimes you have to splash a third color. Splashes should be no more than three cards, and you can run two to four appropriate lands to support that color.

You probably noted the good cards when you checked the decklist, but take another look if you need to. The first step is to rate the colors – look for colors that are weak, and eliminate those. Here’s what I look for:


Removal – the ability to kill opposing creatures – is golden. I want to play cards like Shock and Cruel Revival – and I will use them to kill enemy threats or blockers. I’m not going to fire a Shock at my opponent’s head – if I can kill a blocker, my attacker will probably do more than two damage during the game. Key removal cards include Starstorm, Sparksmith, Pinpoint Avalanche, Solar Blast, Cruel Revival, Smother, Swat, Infest, Slice and Dice, Skinthinner and Skirk Marauder.


Creatures which can avoid blockers are good, especially since the ground troops often end in a stall. Flying and Double Strike are great. Trample and First Strike are pretty good.

Small, fast beats:

2/2 Creatures for two mana are strong in this format. I want to play any in my colors.

I don’t like lots of big fat. Creatures like Towering Baloth and Krosan Cloudscraper are huge, but the odd of getting them into play as something other than a 2/2 Morph, before the game is over, are pretty slim. Be wary of playing a deck with lots of fat creatures: If you have too many fat creatures, you may be dead before you can get a defense in place. A typical opponent may drop a 2/2 on turn 2, another on turns 3 and 4, and two more on turn 5. When you finally start dropping the big monsters, you will probably be at less than ten life, facing many attackers, and die before all your fatties see play. You need some fat, but couple it with a reasonable amount of cheaper defensive creatures.

I like to lay out my creatures by casting cost, and I would love to see a curve like this. Creatures I expect to play Morphed are in the 3cc listing.

1cc: 2

2cc: 4

3cc: 7

4cc: 3

5cc: 1

With eighteen land, and the seventeen creatures shown above, I will have five spells – hopefully all removal. I should be able to drop threats early and often, and win.

(Editor’s Note: The 1cc creatures suck so much in this format, with a few notable exceptions, that I would completely disagree with this. The creatures costs should still average around three, but I’d skip the 1/1s in favor of 2cc and higher costs – The Ferrett)

Again, I hope I’m two colors, but I may splash a third color – probably for removal. I will also splash a great creature, provided I only need one splash colored mana to get it in play. An ideal splash might be a plains and a Secluded Steppe to power two Pacifisms – but I would not splash for an Exalted Angel. The Angel has double white in the casting cost – even in the Morph cost.

I also tend to avoid playing creature enchantments, except amazing ones like Improvised Armor and Mythic Proportions. Typically, if you cast creature enchantments, your opponent can trade one removal or blocker card for two of yours – and that type of card disadvantage is bad.

(Let me stress that this advice is very basic – if you have time, read the card evaluations and articles on building sealed decks on StarCity and elsewhere. Crown of Fury is an enchantment that may often see play, but I don’t have room to explain when or why.)

Once you have built your deck – and cut it down to forty cards, no matter how painful – you register that deck. The deck you register is what you need to play game one of every match. Make a note of the decklist, or of what sideboard cards you added and removed, if necessary.

Whatever cards you don’t include in your main deck are your sideboard cards. You can substitute your sideboard cards after the first game of any match. Unlike constructed events, you can side in any number of cards, and remove any number of cards. The only rule is that your deck still needs to be a minimum of forty cards. You can side in fourteen cards and play fifty-four cards for game two, if you want too (although you will lose – play forty cards). If you need to sideboard more land, or lands of a different color, call a judge. They can get you what you need.

After the first match, if you have time, take another look at your deck. First, make sure the sideboard cards are removed. Failure to remove sideboard results in a game loss at PTQs. I have twice had to call a judge on myself when I failed to remove sideboard cards – it’s embarrassing. I have also watched people get game loses when a judge finds sideboard cards in the deck during a deck check. It’s bad times, so always check your deck.

I can back to some tourneys where I made a mistake building the deck and realized – after registering – that a particular card should have gone in the maindeck. Although I could not fix that error for game one of later matches, I made a mental note to sideboard that card in – and something else out – game two of every match.

Between rounds, you can talk to friends, and even opponents, about how to improve your deck. I will always give advice, if asked, as will most of the good player I know. If you want advice, ask, be polite and learn. Seriously, if your opponent wasn’t a jackass, and if there is still some time left in the round, say”I’m new at this, and I’m not sure I built my deck right – would you mind taking a look?” Most good Magic players are more than happy to give advice.

6. I’m not good enough.

I have two answers to this.

The first that Swiss format pairs winners against winners and losers against losers. If you win the match, you play someone else that won their first match. Likewise, if you lose, you will play someone who lost. That means that, as the rounds go by, the better players are playing the better players, and the lesser skilled players are playing each other. Moreover, the people who are playing with an expectation of winning the PTQ – the pros and near-pros – will drop out and play in side drafts once they can no longer make the top eight. In the later rounds, the people with losing records who are still playing are playing because they like to play. They are typically newer players, older players who don’t have time to play a lot, or good players who opened bad decks. The secret of the Swiss format is that, after a couple rounds, you will be playing opponents with comparable skill levels.

The second answer to”I’m not good enough” is that you get better if you play better people. You may get beat when matched against really good players, but by watching their combat tricks, the way in which they play, and listening to any advice they may have, you will get better.

I played Magic for a while with friends before playing in a tourney. Then I wandered into a store to buy cards, and decided to try playing in a tourney. My first round opponent, I learned latter, was ripping up the JSS. I got a lucky win, but learned some tricks from my opponent none the less. My second round opponent was Bob Maher, Jr. – he’s currently third in the player of the year race, and he was just as good back then. I got creamed. I played in a few more tourneys at that store, and got creamed a lot. However, I watched the tricks these players used, watched how they drafted and talked about what they were doing. There’s no question that I got a lot better because I because I played a lot of better players. I learned.

So, take the plunge. Try a PTQ. You get cards, you get to play, you get better.

Go for it.


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